It was the most unlikely of mismatches.

The Philadelphia 76ers, the best team in basketball according to their record, got a dose of what they've been giving others most of the season as they were humilated by the Washington Bullets, 95-76, tonight at the Spectrum.

The victory moved the Bullets (41-38) into sixth place, ahead of Atlanta in the Eastern Conference playoff scramble. The Hawks (42-39) lost at Kansas City, 114-103, and dropped to seventh place. The New York Knicks (42-38) defeated New Jersey and took over fifth.

The top six teams make the playoffs and the Bullets now can assure themselves of a spot by winning their last three games, the next of which is Thursday in Milwaukee (WDCA-TV-20 at 8:10). They then play the Detroit Pistons at Capital Centre Saturday and end the regular season at Cleveland Sunday.

Atlanta has one game left, the Knicks two.

The Bullets never let the 76ers get into a groove as their grind-it-out offense and swarming, pressing defense frustrated the other team.

Moses Malone didn't play against the Bullets because of tendinitis in his knee; Julius Erving had an off night, scoring seven points, and Andrew Toney got into foul trouble and had only eight points. But all that failed to tarnish the Bullets' victory, their first here since Feb. 13, 1981.

The Bullets, despite shooting only 27 percent in the first quarter, played enough defense to lead, 21-19, then used a 13-0 burst early in the second period to take control.

The Sixers were never much of a threat the rest of the game.

"This is one of the biggest highs we've had this season," Greg Ballard said of the Bullets' 12th win in the last 14 games, "but we've got another big game tomorrow in Milwaukee.

"We took them out of their offense and played the game at our tempo. Whenever we do that we usually win."

Center Rick Mahorn guarded Erving and limited the 76ers' star to three field goals in 12 tries by muscling him away from the basket and making him shoot jump shots. With Toney in foul trouble and Malone on the bench in a nicely styled brown dress suit, the Sixers had no offense.

"Moses would have been a factor, but he wasn't here," said Mahorn. "That wasn't our problem."

Ricky Sobers kept the Bullets in the game in the first period by scoring 10 of his team's 21 points. He made three of six shots and the other Bullets four of 20.

Reggie Johnson tied the score at 21 on a drive at the outset of the second quarter, but then the Bullets strung up 13 successive points.

Frank Johnson was the catalyst. He had five of the points and assisted on three baskets. Don Collins had four points and an assist and Jeff Ruland, scoreless in the first quarter, got the other four points.

Johnson began the rally with a lob pass to Ruland and, after Ruland scored, Johnson stole the ball from Reggie Johnson, scoring on a fast break as Bobby Jones fouled.

Johnson made the free throw, then stole a pass from Clint Richardson and scored on a fast break for a 28-21 lead.

Next, Collins got into the act. Posting Maurice Cheeks, who is five inches shorter than he is, Collins scored four quick points along the baseline and, after another Philadelphia miss, took a lob pass from Johnson, faked three 76ers into the air and shoveled a pass to Ruland, who laid the ball in for a 34-21 lead with 8:27 left in the half.

Johnson finished with nine points, 11 assists and five steals.

"You need stretches like that," he said. "The ball was just bouncing my way."

The 76ers got within five late in the period, but Ballard, who had 16 points, one fewer than Ruland and Sobers, scored the half's final four points on two free throws and a baseline jumper to give Washington a 43-34 lead.

Ballard and Ruland each had four points in a 12-4 rally early in the third quarter that increased the lead to 17. The 76ers had five of their 27 turnovers in that stretch.

The Bullets did almost as they wished the rest of the game and Coach Gene Shue sent in all the reserves except Kevin Grevey with his team leading by 20 points with three minutes left. By that time, most of the capacity crowd of 18,482 was either on its way out or booing.

Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham called it "just a very poor effort" as the 76ers equaled their season low in scoring and were only one point above the franchise low.

"I just wish the clock would have run faster," Cunningham said. "Our minds just weren't there. We had only one assist out of our set offense the whole first half. We can't win like that."

The Bullets had something to do with that, also.

"We didn't play that well on offense," said Johnson, "but we did it on defense. Once we got them down, we never let them back in the game."

"We really wanted this game," said Mahorn. "Our game plan was simple: overplay on the half-court offense and get back on defense."